“Dumping the Alien”: Archaeogaming at South by Southwest 2014

Archaeogaming is as much about exploring and conducting archaeology within gaming environments (virtual space) as it is about understanding the history of video games in the real world (meat space). The perfect, literal embodiment of archaeogaming was discussed for an hour in Austin as part of the 2014 South by Southwest festival. “Dumping the Alien: Unearthing the Atari Graveyard” featured the CEO of Fuel Entertainment, Mike Burns, and co-producer for Lightbox, Jonathan Chinn, speaking together about the upcoming springtime excavation and resulting documentary.

Image

Still from the music video for “When I Wake Up” by Wintergreen in which band members travel to Alamogordo to excavate the Atari Burial Ground. Photo: http://www.retrogamenetwork.com

I was unable to attend, but followed the #etburial hashtag on Twitter for the hour. The Twitter roll and a curated list of tweets follows the text of this post. Stuart Dredge of the Guardian newspaper published an excellent piece on the panel, including several quotes from Burns and Chinn. Read the piece here. The session included a demo of the “worst video game ever”, E.T., played on an actual Atari 2600 console, and concluded with a random drawing that gave the console and a copy of the game autographed by its maker to one lucky attendee.

Now that the wheels are in motion on the project, you can learn more about it officially through the project’s website, Dumping the Alien. There is also an official Twitter @ataridigdoc, and hashtag: #etburial.

Regarding the documentary currently in production, fanboys/fangirls might take heart in the following (from the project’s website): “Zak Penn, writer of the Avengers, X-Men Last Stand, and Last Action Hero . . . [is] also writing and directing the documentary on our Alamogordro project.” The film will debut to users of Xbox 360 and Xbox One before a more general release.

But what about the actual archaeology? It’s clear that the project is to be a “dig”, but as of yet no archaeologists have been officially announced as being attached to the project. I’ve blogged about this project here, back on June 11, 2013, when the story officially broke. My archaeologist friends and my gamer friends and my archaeologist-gamer friends were ecstatic about the news. This is the coolest project, possibly ever. After their initial jolt of enthusiasm, they wanted to know who would actually do the digging. How would the excavation be run? How would the process and finds be documented? Five million cartridges is not unlike wading through five million sherds of pottery: it’s a lot of junk, but it can still tell us something.

My hope (and the hope of the archaeological community) is that the excavation will be handled professionally, but not without fun. After all, we’re digging into our recent past to confirm or deny an urban legend, and if confirmed, to dig, to explore, to document, to preserve. We’ll learn more about the gaming industry in general, and Atari specifically. We’ll learn if millions of cartridges really were trucked into the desert to be buried in a hole and capped by concrete. We’ll learn if Atari also chose to dump other games, prototypes, hardware, documents, and more. We almost saw the death of big, home gaming, and it will be interesting to see how close we came.

The excavation is purported to begin in the Alamogordo, New Mexico desert in mid-April or early May. I’ll certainly be watching with interest, and hope to make a trip out to New Mexico once the digging begins to see what’s happening, and to hopefully confirm that real archaeology is being done on these artifacts from our recent past.

I tweeted a few questions during the session regarding the specific nature of the dig (see below), but those went unanswered. To be fair, it appears that there was not a Q&A session following the panel. For now, the excitement remains quite high for both gamers and archaeologists. And as a kid who used to sneak out of his house to go play Atari at a friend’s, and as an archaeologist, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Useful/Interesting Tweets (selected from 101 tweets and retweets posted during the event, presented below from oldest to most recent, March 7, 2014):

Andrew ReinhardAtari Burial Ground UPDATE: Official hashtag is now #etburial #sxsw Updated info on today’s presenters is here: http://schedule.sxsw.com/2014/events/event_IAP22574 …

Andrew Reinhard There’s now an official Twitter for the Atari Burial Ground project and documentary: @ataridigdoc #etburial

Lightbox Happy #SXSW everyone! Lightbox Co-Founder JONATHAN CHINN talks all things #atari at panel Unearthing the Atari Graveyard #etburial

Andrew Reinhard I’ve been blogging/tweeting about the #etburial over the past few mos. & folks are asking the obv. questions of “when” and “who” re: digging

Andrew Reinhard There is also real concern from the archaeological community that the excavation of the #etburial is done correctly & documented well.

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photo @kinseyv

Tim Hennessey Pro-Tip: If the ET video game phones home, hang up. #ETburial

Leandro GonzálezProbably the real cartridges are hiding in Argentina, and that’s were I should take that cartridge to meet it’s brothers #etburial

Greg Farley12 pixels nearly killed Atari and my childhood. #etburial

Michelle SLearning about Atari’s #ETburial and watching a brave soul play it at #SXSW P.S. They’re making a movie about it too

Daley ScreeningJoystick just fell off the controller, which seems fitting. The Atari just committed suicide rather than let ET be played. #ETBurial. #SXSW

No Crusts#ETBurial Filmmakers have scored permission to try to dig up the cartridges. If you don’t know the history… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_video_game_burial …

Hung NguyenThey’re trying to troubleshoot an Atari 2600 in the middle of the panel. I believe that’s a first. #etburial #sxswi #inthe80s

Dave KingE.T. for Atari 2600 was so bad that it cost the company $500m. But there’s something endearing about the story.. #etburial #sxsw

Gui AmbrosWatching the most surreal talk of sxsw: Unearthing the Atari Graveyard: The Search for ET. With rare original ET cartridges… #etburial

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photo: @superpanic

Andrew ReinhardHere’s a primer on the history of the #etburial site: http://archaeogaming.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/video-game-archaeology-in-meatspace/ … #archaeogaming

Noob GalleryCurrently at sxsw watching a talk on the ET atari cartridge burial – a great bit of gaming history! Never forget! #etburial or #etrevival?

Joshua HirschKnew it was a terrible game, but didn’t realize it almost brought down the video game industry. #ETburial

Angie NewmanI like how ET looked in the Atari video game. Cute little green guy. I hope they find the cartridges. I want one. #etburial #SXSW

Marc SobierBuried Atari cartridges + old nuclear test site = ET Godzilla #ETburial, #SXSW

Andrew ReinhardQuestion for the #etburial panel: what else do they think is down there with the ET cartridges?

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photo: @dannaquinn

Paul BenzonFor those interested in the #etburial, I did this piece on it a little while back: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2012/08/26/hipster-archaeology …

Thor MitchellStrikes me that the #etburial may be the earliest example of the Streisand effect… http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect …

Jim Kidwell@doug_hanke Oh, and apparently the film makers DO plan to dig for the discarded Atari titles – kids have dug playable stuff up! #etburial

Hung NguyenThey think they’ve honed in on the section of land where the cartridges are buried. They are about to start digging. #sxswi #etburial

Jim Kidwell@doug_hanke title/website of the film is http://dumpingthealien.com  #etburial

John Robert NixonDid #Atari bury one of the worst video games of all-time in the New Mexico desert? Film makers at #SXSW are going to find out. #etburial

Atari Dig@daveking certainly intrigued to see what we will find! #etburial #atari

Andrew Reinhard @ejohntexas #etburial Not just other games, but I’m wondering if there are hardware prototypes, too, as well as documents, etc.

Ole ReißmannWo ist ET? Das Atari-Spiel floppte, Millionen Cartridges wurden 1983 in der Wüste verbuddelt. Filmmaker wollen sie ausgraben #ETBurial #sxsw

Andrew ReinhardFolks attending the #etburial panel now at #sxsw, are there any more concrete details about the project? #archaeogaming

Stuart DredgeSearch for the infamous Atari E.T. cartridges landfill heats up http://gu.com/p/3nc66/tw  via @guardian #sxsw #etburial pic.twitter.com/8ZQjGnVKfJ

Mike DaleyGreat panel on the Atari ET game cartridge graveyard in Alamagordo NM & how Atari spectacularly dropped the ball #SXSW #ETBurial

Tweeter Roll-Call (55 unique tweeters tweeted during the event):

@adreinhard

@satscribe

@nickiannitti

@FuelEntertain

@cramerkrasselt

@ataridigdoc

@GuiAmbros

@mdaley01

@pbenzon

@dannaquinn

@stuartdredge

@fuelindustries

@stansbury_carri

@oler

@ejohntexas

@daveking

@johnrnixon

@jimkidwell

@chucksplatt

@rBrenticus

@txmischief

@ThorMitchell

@DhyphenK

@msobier

@newmaninnyc

@joshuahirsch

@NoobGallery

@HeyVeronica

@ScrogginsCam

@superpanic

@pasvids

@leobridle

@kinseyv

@GuiAmbros

@jlvoris

@justinc

@CarlySMcGinnis

@MonkeyWipes

@NoCrusts

@DaleyScreening

@chrisjb

@GreySkySymphony

@beausallnatural

@FarleyOil

@jalted

@leandro6758

@benackerman

@theimadkhan

@RustyPonds

@MTripepi

@boxedwarning

@bweagle

@marshallhonorof

@mobilefomo

@lightboxent

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